By Andrew Gans
17 Feb 2012
NaTasha Yvette Williams
In her second Broadway outing, the beautiful, thoroughly moving and exquisitely sung revival of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, NaTasha Yvette Williams manages to be a standout in a cast of standouts led by Norm Lewis, Audra McDonald and David Alan Grier. Williams, who made her Broadway debut in The Color Purple, plays Mariah, the Earth Mother who keeps a watchful eye on all of the goings-on in Catfish Row, in Porgy and Bess, which is helmed by Tony-nominated Hair director Diane Paulus. About her performance, the New York Times said, "Williams gives a warmly detailed interpretation of the maternal, imperious Mariah that helps ground us in the values of Catfish Row," while the Hollywood Reporter said she "serves up ample doses of earthy humor and maternal warmth." Earlier this week, I had the chance to chat with the actress, who sprinkles her conversation with much laughter. Williams, who is new mom to 11-month-old twins Mackenzie Christina Lee and Nile Christopher Lee, spoke about motherhood, her latest Broadway outing and her road from Algebra I teacher to the New York stage; that interview follows.
Question: Tell me, how did you get involved with Porgy and Bess?
NaTasha Yvette Williams: Oh, my goodness! Well, I auditioned… My callback was ten days after my twins were born. [Laughs.] I had twins on March 1.
Williams: Thank you. And, my little girl was still in the NICU, and I got the call for the callback. And, I was like, "Look, these kids got to eat…," and I actually had my hospital bracelets on. [Laughs.] They let me come in and audition, and I sang, and I went back to the hospital to be with the babies. It was crazy.
Williams: They're fraternal twins—a boy and a girl. They were actually in the show in Cambridge when we did the out-of-town run—they played Clara's baby… But I got involved just by auditioning and going in. I heard that it was coming and wanted to be involved.
Question: What was your familiarity with the opera?
Williams: I just knew that it was a famous opera. I had never seen it, and I knew that I wasn't necessarily a legit singer, so I never really auditioned for it. But when I heard they were trying to make it more musical-theatre-like—musical-theatre-esque—I was like, "This is for me!"
Question: There was much in the news about Stephen Sondheim's comments. What were your thoughts about people re-envisioning a classic piece?
Williams: Because I wasn't, and still not really, an opera person—certainly, not an opera purist—I was of the belief that as long as the piece, or whatever it is, is being done, it's a tribute to those who created it. If it wasn't a masterwork, no one would care. We wouldn't want to see it done any kind of way. Not the traditional way or not adding a little spice to it. I'm of the belief that if it is something worthy of doing, why not give it another look or another take, so that we can invite other people to begin to enjoy what those people—the purists or the people who are already familiar with it—have enjoyed. And, [if the idea] is to make an opera a musical theatre piece, that's certainly not taking away from the opera, it's just creating another venue—another avenue—for the piece to survive and to live even longer with another audience.
Question: Tell me a bit about working with Diane Paulus.
Williams: That has been extraordinary for me! We seem to be surrounded by creative people that are so giving and so open… We were in a talkback, and I think it was Audra McDonald who said that Diane just has no ego, so that you are allowed to contribute and create as well. And, she certainly is guiding the ship and pulling things back and pushing things forward, but she is able to do so in a way that your ego is maintained, you're not bruised. Even if what you chose to do was ridiculous—didn't fit in—she can tell you that in a way that allows you to feel free to do something else—to choose something else to do. Working with her has been great… I got hurt, actually, in Cambridge and was able to sit in the audience and sort of watch the rehearsals. I mean, I was saying my lines from my chair, but actually got to see her moving in and out of the seats as she was directing and watching the stage pictures and trying to create things, and it was such a wonderful vantage point for me—just being able to see her, to see what she saw and figure out how I fit into that picture. Because when you're on the stage sometimes, and you're creating and building this piece—this character—you're not able to see what it looks like. But because I sat out for so long with my injury, I'm able to see what the stage looked like and how I fit into that. So, I was able to see a little bit of what Diane sees, and it was just a magnificent process for me, to be able to watch her watch us and then put myself into that as well.
Question: Are you completely healed now?
Williams: I wouldn't say I'm all healed. I have a little dent in my leg. [Laughs.] The original design of the show—there were holes in the stage to give it that weathered-and-worn Catfish Row look, and I actually fell in one of those holes, and it sort of injured me. It doesn't hurt anymore, it's all cosmetic now, I guess. But we're hobbling right along. [Laughs.] A lot of people got their legs hurt, and we're like, "Oh, it's the curse of Porgy!"